Learning about U.S. involvement in World War I through the lens of those who made the ultimate sacrifice

stateofwarA century ago, on April 6, 1917, Congress passed an official declaration of war against Germany and joined the “War to End All Wars” already three years in progress. The declaration was well supported in Congress yet was the result of a rapidly shifting public support of involvement. The slogan, “He kept us out of war” was the campaign cry of the 1916 re-election of President Woodrow Wilson. To put that into context, we are as close to the 2016 election today as the declaration of war was to the 1916 election. Public opinion can shift quickly, that’s for sure.

Many young men who voted in their first Presidential election (and only men…the 19th Amendment and women’s voting rights were still non-existent) found themselves filled with patriotic duty to go “Over There” and fight for the United States. Over 4.7 million doughboys answered the call, and served in the final 20 months of the deadliest global conflict at the time. The United States saw over 116,000 Americans fall, and another 204,000 wounded. In the classroom, what I often find with casualty numbers, is that they are difficult for students to contextualize, and can sound like the scores and stats from yesterday’s game.

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The goal of any Social Studies teacher is to help students understand that those numbers represent human lives lost. Those numbers represent empty chairs at the dinner table. For each life lost, there are countless loved ones remaining. Because World War I was a century ago, finding people to tell the stories from the battlefield is an opportunity no longer available for our classrooms. All of those realities were swimming around in my head three years ago when I was asked by National History Day to design a lesson about WWI using primary sources from the Smithsonian’s Price of Freedom collection. This is the brief story of how I did that and what goes into the lesson.

I started by perusing the primary sources available on the Smithsonian website and didn’t take long to decide that the Distinguished Service Cross would be the artifact my lesson highlighted. I’d recently returned from a 2013 trip to Normandy with the Albert Small Sacrifice for Freedom Student and Teacher Institute. A former student and I were part of the group and we created a memorial website for Virgil Tangborn, one of the 241 Minnesota soldiers buried in the American Cemetery in Normandy.

The concept of the lesson was based upon this experience, but I had to massively scale it down to fit just a few days of instruction and make it work for middle school students. c3isherebanner-220After I stumbled upon a website listing details of all Distinguished Service Cross members, the light bulb switched on.

The other goal with the lesson, was to create one that aligned with the freshly published College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies Standards. I wanted to make sure that my lesson matched all four dimensions of the C3 Framework.

Details of the Lesson Plan

You can read all about the lesson in this document, but I’ve written this blog to give more back story and backchat of what I was thinking and how it’s gone. I wrote this with the intention that you’ll also read the lesson, so if details here seem vague, look at the lesson.

The lesson compels students to answer the following essential questions:

  • What does distinguished service to your country in a time of war look like?
  • How does a medal serve as a symbol of the extraordinary service of an otherwise ordinary individual?  
  • What is the value in learning about a large-scale war through the experiences of an individual?
  • How do we honor those individuals a century later?

Screen Shot 2017-03-30 at 11.57.22 PMWith those questions in mind, students begin learning about the Distinguished Service Cross itself using resources from the Smithsonian. They complete a “Primary Source Analysis” of the medal to help them dig into the first two essential questions. Their next task is to dig into the list of soldiers who received the Distinguished Service Cross in World War I. I prefer to give students the entire list of all medal recipients to choose from, and there are plenty. How it usually goes is that almost every student is immediately drawn to search their last name, and then the last names of the oldest relatives they know. Next, they use their skimming skills (control-F on some computers, command-F on Apples) to find soldiers from Minnesota, or whatever state they prefer.

Soon enough, they apply their own personal criteria to select a soldier to learn about and apply more advanced research skills already taught in the course of the school year.  It’s not required for students to already have these skills, because they will acquire many of them with this lesson. It is definitely possible to go from being a textbook-based teacher and do this lesson. Just know that you’ll need to show students how to do lots, and you will stumble/teach through it together, but that “messy learning” style can be really good for student (and teacher) growth. Screen Shot 2017-03-30 at 11.57.32 PM

The top half of the “Get to Know Your Soldier” paper can come straight from the Home of Heroes website, but the lower half requires them to do some deep digging. When they know the date their soldier died, location information, along with the branch, division, regiment, company he served in, they can triangulate that data to conduct searches in google. The example I use with classes or groups of students who need more support is with soldier Joe Collette who is the only soldier from the town where I teach (Elk River). From the website, students learn details of how Private First Class Collette was killed just four days before war’s end, on November 7, 1918 near Sedan France, as a member of Company L in the 166th Infantry Regiment, of the 42d Division of the American Expeditionary Forces (A.E.F.). A google search of the 166th Infantry brings us to a wikipedia page about the 166th where we read that the 166th was involved in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive and the Battle of Saint-Mihiel. Following Wikipedia pages, we discover that Meuse-Argonne Offensive lasted into November of 1918 and that the railroad hub in Sedan, France was successfully captured by the United States on November 6th. While we don’t know with 100 percent accuracy the intricate details of Joe Collette, because we know the movements of his unit and the details of the larger battle, students can make evidence based inferences. This is an important skill that is so much more than just skimming text to answer questions on a worksheet.

Learning such intimate details about a soldier they selected does wonders for engagement. Students long to learn more about the battles, the towns, the actions of the branch/division/regiment around those dates. They keep me very busy fielding questions and find themselves applying their dictionary and database skills. Screen Shot 2017-03-30 at 11.57.46 PMWhen they share details with me I learn tons.  When they stump me with questions we answer it together, and they see me go through the process of learning. Learning together with your students is a great way to teach them how to become lifelong learners.

As they research, students share stories with each other, find amazing parallel stories between different soldiers, and never fail to impress me.
Students learn about the events of the U.S. involvement in WWI through the experiences of their soldier and can’t get enough, rather than from a textbook examining the big picture only. Students end up having built connections between both the big picture and an individual story.

Honoring their soldier feels like a natural first step. Writing an editorial about everything they’ve learned so far, and sharing the story, is how they communicate conclusions. Taking up the challenge of publishing the editorial is a great way for students to take informed action. The first year I taught this lesson is the only time I’ve had the time to fully implement it and have students write the editorial, but it was a smashing success. We submitted a dozen letters to various newspapers and were able to find half a dozen of them make it to press (click any of the links below to see the published letters). Nicklaus Gill--Austin Daily Herald (Minnesota)

Something we are careful to do in class is walk the thin line between remembering/memorializing these young men and being careful not to over-glorify death. Today’s students have enough glorification of war coming at them from video games, but this lesson helps humanize the casualty accounts and adds color to the black and white photos in their textbooks.

We are entering the centennial commemoration of the U.S. involvement in World War I and many social studies classrooms across the state will be giving this war some extra attention. I highly recommend this lesson, and all of the other ones available, in the National History Day World War I book. If you have any questions regarding this lesson, do not hesitate to let me know!